A Trio of Rivers in Namibia’s Northeast

Birding at Nkasa Rupara National Park
June 9, 2015
Namibia Exclusive – A luxury Namibian reverie
June 15, 2015

Text Annabelle Venter | Main photograph Paul van Schalkwyk

Namibia’s largest wetland reveals a new gem

I t’s been 20 years since we first arrived at the Mamili National Park just as the sun was setting. While waiting at the entrance gate for the warden, we wondered what lay inside and marvelled at a blood red sun silhouetting the magnificent trees just beyond the fence. The scene held all the promise and excitement of an African night unfolding. The spell was broken momentarily by the sound of a bicycle approaching over the rough track and in a short while the warden had cheerily waved us on our way, into unexplored territory with vague instructions to choose a spot for the night ourselves. Yes, he said, there are plenty of lions around… and elephants.

Night was falling quickly. A short distance into the park, Two Tree Island beckoned us, elevated enough to spot unwelcome four-footed guests and with just enough room for the two vehicles. No sooner had we offloaded the chairs than the welcoming committee struck up its greeting. Booming, roaring and claiming the night, lions had us appreciate our insignificance in their world. Three groups of them surrounded us. Our Maglite helped to establish their positions by picking out twinkling eyes, and we settled in for a restless and unforgettable night.

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Malachite Kingfisher (Alcedo cristata). Photo ©Annabelle Venter
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Children from the local community in traditional dress. Photo courtesy of Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge
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Room with a view. Photo courtesy of Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge

Mamili National Park, now called Nkasa Rupara National Park, lies at the southern tip of the ‘bulge’ in the Zambezi region of north-eastern Namibia. The Kwando River flows southwards past the western half of the reserve before taking a sharp U-turn to the northeast again. Roughly at the bend, it becomes the Linyanti River, which is more popularly accessed via Kings Pool camp on its Botswana side.

The Kwando is one of the three big waterways that form borders in the northeast of Namibia and it is certainly one of the most interesting, diverse and beautiful of the river systems. The big sisters to the Kwando are the better-known Okavango River further west, and the mighty Zambezi to the east.

To set the record straight, if you are – like me – a bit confused as to the number of rivers in the Zambezi region, keep in mind that this region is sometimes also referred to as ‘Four Rivers’ by tour operators and other groups! They appear to omit the Linyanti – which makes for an even more confusing scenario!

How does all this water end up in such an otherwise dry country? The three big rivers have their origins in Angola or Zambia north of Namibia. The Okavango joins the Cuito in Angola just before they enter Namibia as the Okavango. The Kwando also rises in Angola and the Zambezi originates in Zambia. Together, their catchment areas are the size of Namibia!

Rivers support an abundance of life and in the northeast you can expect to find a very different environment to anywhere else in our country. A great diversity of plant, animal and bird life can be spotted here, with species found nowhere else in Namibia. Travelling north from Windhoek your first meeting will be with the Okavango River. Driving northwards through the town of Rundu brings you to the riverbank. From here you could continue on the old main road which is gravel and sandy in places, stopping along the way to enjoy the various camps on the riverbank, or you could just take the tar road to speed up the eastbound journey if your destination is further on. At Divundu you will encounter the Okavango again and here you are faced with choices – follow the river southeast until it exits Namibia at Mohembo, or cross it and continue to the next big river. The Okavango is host to a number of beautiful places to while away some time. The jewel in its crown is the Mahango Game Reserve where you will find buffalo, hippos and crocodiles, sable and roan antelope, to name but a few. Look out for elephants feeding near the river and spend time marvelling at the baobab trees for which the park is famous. The riverside route in this park is best done early morning and late afternoon. The bush drive is long, hot and sandy and not as rewarding as the river route.

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Migrating elephants make their way past the lodge on a regular basis. Photo courtesy of Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge
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Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge is run on strict eco-tourism principles
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Pushing on eastwards you will pass through the Mukwe area, characterized by Kalahari woodlands, and after about 240 km emerge at the Kwando River and the start of the Zambezi region. We will explore this area in more detail in a minute, but let’s first continue east to get a feel of how the land lies.

Crossing the Kwando River and its floodplains will take you east to the region’s administrative capital, Katima Mulilo. Here you will find our third main river, the Zambezi, which eventually flings itself over the Victoria Falls about 210 km further east. At Katima the river is wide and steady and the region is well-loved by fishermen and birders alike for the amazing diversity to be found here. Another 30 km east, the legendary Chobe River joins the Zambezi after an interesting route and name-changing experience. But let’s return to the extraordinary wetlands at the Kwando now.

Once you arrive at the Kongola checkpoint after traversing the Mukwe area, you will find yourself in the middle of the Kwando River’s floodplains. Angola is just a few kilometres to the north, and this spot is roughly in the centre of the Kaza Conservation Area which spans five countries. A few kilometres further eastwards, as you turn south onto the C49 to explore the Kwando River, you will be entering a unique part of Namibia and an old favourite of mine. Travelling this rough road in the past was an adventure in itself, but the tarring recently reached completion and makes driving to this destination easier than ever. There are several wonderful places to spend time along this route but let’s look at the national parks in the area.

Mudumu National Park lies about halfway between Kongola and Sangwali, the southern-most village on this route. Mudumu is home to buffalos, wild dogs, lions, leopards, hyenas, elephants, sable and roan antelopes, to mention just a few. But it offers so much more and has an unfenced campsite on the river where you need to be self-sufficient. Get your permit from MET, at Sisuwe or Nakatwa, to experience this special park at ground level. It’s a great place to immerse yourself in wild Africa.

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Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk

Further ‘down the road’, 75 km south of Kongola, our destination is Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge, bordering the Mamili area which I visited all those years ago. I recently chatted to one of the owners, Simone Micheletti, to find out what has changed in the last twenty years.

Mamili was proclaimed a national park in March 1990, just before Namibia’s independence, and recently its name was changed to Nkasa Rupara National Park (NP). It is home to Namibia’s largest wetland and therefore in a class of its own when it comes to biodiversity in our arid country. Over the years the water levels have fluctuated and Simone recalls that when he first visited early in 2010, the area was flooded and inaccessible. Returning a couple of months later he was able to enter the park for the first time via a new bridge built by MET. Eighteen months  later, on the 27th of July 2011, the new lodge owned jointly by Simone, his two brothers and their father, welcomed its first visitors. The lodge overlooks the floodplain close to where the Kwando River becomes the Linyanti River system.

Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge is a successful joint venture between the private investors and the nearby Wuparo Conservancy and practises strict eco-tourism principles, ‘uniting conservation, communities and sustainable travel’. This includes monthly financial commitments to the conservancy, sourcing 95% of the employees from the local community and to meet the lodge’s daily electricity needs entirely with solar power. The aim is to offer an eco-friendly holiday experience with minimal impact on the fragile environment, focussing on energy, waste, water and wildlife management. Simone tells me that in keeping with their vision, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) closed the park to campers about two years ago in an effort to protect the area. Much of the park is still under water, especially in the wet season, but many of the old tracks remain visible. The local community at Sangwali set up a campsite outside the park and you can still enter Nkasa Rupara for a self-drive day visit.

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Human-wildlife conflict is a problem as it is anywhere else where people live in close contact with nature. The two resident lion prides within Nkasa Rupara occasionally wander outside the park and are in danger of being killed if they prey on cattle.

Panthera and the Kwando Carnivore Project, under the direction of Paul and Lisa Funston respectively, are alleviating the problem by helping the local communities to design and build stronger kraals to protect their livestock at night, appointing lion guardians to report movements of predators in the inhabited areas outside the park and generally educating local communities. Simone and his team at Nkasa assist Paul and Lisa by providing information and helping out in practical ways.

Simone is keen to tell me about the lodge’s newest project which is about to be unveiled this winter. The owners have built a new self-catering establishment, called the Jackalberry Tented Camp, to the southeast of the original camp, this time much nearer to the main river itself, in the Linyanti marsh. This small piece of paradise will have just 4 tents which will be ready for visitors in July this year. Guests will be able to drive themselves to the camp and, having paid the park fees, will be free to explore the accessible areas of the park. Simone adds that they are planning to build three bird hides where visitors can simply sit and watch the unique life of the wetlands unfold around them. This camp will follow the principles of eco-tourism mentioned previously and facilitate controlled access to an area of great environmental importance in Namibia.

Simone also envisages using Jackalberry Tented Camp for overflow from the main lodge during the high season in winter and spring. Of course this is a very rewarding time for game viewing as large herds of migrating elephants feed in the park from March to October. In the summer months they move into Botswana, but then again it’s time for summer’s migrating birds to wow the visitors. Rare species of wetland antelope can be seen around the lodge, such as sitatunga, red lechwe and reedbuck.

During the first week in August the local Mayeyi tribe hosts a two-day cultural festival at Sangwali with their Bayeyi clansmen who visit from across the river in Botswana. There is much singing and dancing and the community is happy to welcome visitors to enjoy the festival with them.

Nkasa Rupara National Park certainly has a lot to offer the eco-conscious visitor and is the diamond in the crown for the Kwando-Linyanti stretch of our ‘quartet of rivers’. I hope to renew my acquaintance with this magical area soon.

* Since publication of this article in Travel News Namibia Winter Issue 2015 it has been confirmed that Malachite Eco-Camp has undergone a name change to Jackalberry Tented Camp.

This article was first published in the Winter 2015 issue of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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